With the death tolls rising due to rioting, law-enforcement misconduct, and general hatred, R-Rated Religion thought it might serve the public by giving a theological look into death and dying. This is known as Thanatology, or the study of death (and yes this is where Thanos got his name).
than•a•tol•o•gy \ˌtha-nə-ˈtä-lə-jē\ noun
[Greek Thanatos + English -logy] circa 1842: the description or study of the phenomena of death and of psychological mechanisms for coping with them—than•a•to•log•i•cal \ˌtha-nə-tə-ˈlä-ji-kəl\ adjective—than•a•tol•o•gist \-ə-ˈtä-lə-jist\ noun
With society thrust into chaos and identity political animous so rampant everywhere, looking into death and the process of dying seemed appropriate. So the question is: How should one die?
End of life (EOL) circumstances compel people into a world of thanatology that is both confusing and stressing. It is important, to the Christina way of life, to have a sound personal theology of death and dying that is pragmatic and deeply biblical. This article takes a stab, albeit minimally, at the question of how one should die while drilling down into theological doctrines that support such viewpoints. “To confront human mortality is a basic human need. Any theology that ignored death would be inadequate, and any philosophy of life that avoided providing an answer to death, superficial.”
A good starting point is looking at the quality of life versus quantity of life issue. This is very relative in modern society because so much of what we see on television, in movies, and through social media is an obvious glorification of the rich and famous. Society has fully endorsed the view that life is all about quantity over quality. The more you can acquire the better your life must be, right? Case in point; we elected a reality television billionaire to the office of the President of the United States. Just a decade ago he was shaving Vince McMahon’s head at Wrestle Mania XXIII; remember perspective matters. I am not sure you can get more egregious than that. Fame and fortune are king and America is the land of kingmakers. But is this view biblically sound? Does it comport with New Testament teaching? Of course not, that is self-evident. The Bible teaches believers to live a life of caution focusing on quality relationships lived out in the service of God and to one another:
“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:19 ESV).
And what are treasures in heaven? The only thing that goes to heaven – people. This passage is very clear that an individual’s life should be measured by his/her good works and moral righteousness in the service to God’s Kingdom. Once you realize this elemental principle, you can view death or dying pragmatically and theologically.
Learning a good balance of quality of life with the quantity of life is rooted in truth perspectives. Some of these viewpoints are complicated and extremely hard to bear. The Bible holds a strong focus on the quality of life one is exhorted to lead underpinning God’s sovereign hold on everyone’s quantity of life. This points us to focus on living a good life in service to His kingdom while he blesses our life in kind. This narrative is played out everywhere in the Old Testament.
This puts people in a quandary of what does the quality of life means once we are confronted with actual sickness and disease. This question is metastasized when relating to EOL situations. A person’s view of their quality of life drastically changes once the issue of death or dying arises. “Quality of life is often related directly to the number of physical symptoms that the patient is experiencing. Controlling physical symptoms for the patient may be the key nursing intervention that impacts the patient’s overall QOL” It often pits people’s comfort and control against God’s sovereign rule and brings into questions of mankind’s ability to control his/her own destiny. Just like in Eden, when men/women put their own will above that of God, it never turns out in their favor.
Not always are the physical effects of one’s prognosis or circumstance paramount to the quality of life. Some of us might be more concerned about the cognitive and mental abilities that are often sapped by disease, especially with a primary diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, dementia, or mental illness. “The Reisberg Functional Assessment Staging (FAST) scale can provide specific levels at which one may determine that a continued quantity of life is undesirable, given the diminished quality one is experiencing.” This issue is so detrimental to EOL situations concerning mental illness and depression so much so that countless sufferers have opted out of life voluntarily in lieu of further medical treatment. Sound biblical doctrine in the realm of thanatology could have averted these situations or assuaged the stress they caused.
The key theme in balancing quality and quantity can be found in the book of Micah. When asked of what God requires of us, a simple but profound answer is given: “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). As long as we follow His directives and live within His will while furthering His kingdom by loving one another, God will provide the perfect quantity that each of us requires, just as His sovereign reign is declared throughout the Bible:
“Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it” (Isaiah 46:8-11 ESV).
Living within the will of God guarantees the quality of life God desires for us and when our end approaches, that quantity of life pressures and decisions line up with His sovereignty rather than the human need for control. Just as we cannot control the society around us or its chaotic direction, we cannot (with minor exceptions like health and physical wellness) fully control how we eventually meet our maker.
Dealing with EOL circumstance and realities lead people to contemplate potential impacts on after-life outcomes. This goes to the heart of coming to grips with how one should die. The afterlife is the prize, or ultimum focus, of believing mortals. We, as Christians, look to the afterlife with reverence and anticipation whereas other realities see it as bleak, scary, or nebulous.
Practically, all death is scary. Ceasing to exist would be frightening to everyone; however, to the believer in Christ, death is just an open door to eventual glorification. It is the culmination of the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, his promise of substitutionary atonement. From this basis, death is a privilege afforded to those who live in Christ and walk in obedience to the will of God. Like most paradoxical scenarios that pit the Kingdom of God against the secular world, death is just the beginning!
Theologically this viewpoint has real-life realities in the here and now of the Christian life. Paul writes:
“You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. For not all flesh is the same, but there is one kind for humans, another for animals, another for birds, and another for fish. There are heavenly bodies and earthly bodies, but the glory of the heavenly is of one kind, and the glory of the earthly is of another. There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars; for star differs from star in glory” (1 Corinthians 15:36-41 ESV).
Paul is not only indicating a physical resurrection but fighting against the modern-day philosophy of the times in juxtaposition to ethical virtues and moral direction. As Paul Brown writes about first Corinthians fifteen; “Paul argued for the veracity and nature of the future bodily resurrection in light of the Greco-Roman mores of those who denied the future resurrection, and also proposes how right convictions called for moral obligation.” Believing in the realities of the afterlife called into question our moral obligations of the hear and now. Obedience to the word and will of God leads us to Christ, that leads us to salvation, and eventual glorification.
The most difficult reality of the afterlife is judgment. If eternal salvation in heaven is the ultimum focus than eternity in hell due to an unjustified life lived should be the ultima bello suscipiendo deterreat (ultimate deterrent). Judgment should be viewed as something already bought and paid for by the work of Jesus Christ at Calvary; not something earned or worked for. Judgment is interlocked with resurrection; “and yet the judgment itself was associated with the resurrection of the dead and with the second coming of Jesus, which would take place at the end of history (Matt. 25:31–46)”. To view judgment, void of the resurrection will surely throw one into the realm of disparity, torment, and guilt. When dealing with judgment, the believer embraces grace; anything else is a defeatist way of viewing the afterlife.
Challenges with EOL decisions and Public Policy
There is much to be debated and discussed when we think of EOL decisions. One highly debated encompasses challenges of integrating personal preferences and public policy in end-of-life standards and decisions. This topic pits the government against medical institutions against insurance entities against individuals and families. It becomes a hodgepodge of humanity subverting the sovereignty of God. When it comes down to these sensitive issues, we must realize one axiomatic fact: “that God is free and able to do all that he wills; that He reigns over all creation and that his will is the final cause of all things. This is often expressed in the language of kingship.” Digging too deeply in the controversial tidings of how humanity controls and subverts death and dying should never elevate the Christian into believing death can be conquered without the hope of Jesus Christ; “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he dies, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die” (John 11:25-26 ESV).
This is to say that no one should ignore the division and perils of death and dying pitted against public policy and the establishment institutions. Fighting for health care and provisions during the dying process is a noble and worthwhile cause; however, it should be noted that it is a much more recent cause. Demetra M. Pappas writes: “Hoefler and Kamoie observe that before the turn of the century, there existed patient mortality rates of 25% and medical staff mortality rates of 10% per year; many members of both groups succumbed to acute infections derivative of their presence, rather than their role, in hospitals” This shows the mere lunacy of viewing EOL conflicts with public policyholders or administrations centuries old. Context is important and it would behoove the populace that EOL challenges today are nothing like EOL challenges hallowed in the annuls of pre-modern medicine. In most cases, people died giving care to the people who were dying by the mere presence of location. It is valuable that we deal with death patiently and with steadfast obedience knowing God is working all things to his pleasure (Romans 8:28) and desires, that might include suffering (1 Peter 3:17) for His will above our own.
Death and dying situations might be the most difficult circumstance to meet God on His terms, not our own. It rips at the core of human existence, that death beckons us from birth. It is our innate will to fight death on all levels; philosophically, theoretically, and theologically. This could not be further from the truth. It is in death that Christians should embrace life and that life is found in the living, revealed, and written word of God. “God sustains his creation. He directs and guides all creatures to fulfill the purpose of their existence. In so doing, he is working out His eternal purpose in the lives of individuals and nations. That purpose finds its center in the church.” This is known as divine providence and it is God’s way of showing mankind that His will be done, on earth as is in Heaven. A theology professor once said: “it is not until you actually understand death and that understanding now allows you to truly live.”
Anderson, Ray Sherman. Theology, Death, and Dying. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2012.
“Atonement Theory and Its Impact.” South University. MIN7561 W4L4, 2016. https://myclasses.southuniversity.edu/d2l/le/content/52238/viewContent/2092143/View.
Brown, Paul J. “Bodily Resurrection and Its Significance for Ethics: a Study of 1 Corinthians 15.” Trinity Journal 34, no. 1 (2013): 78–79. https://www.thecampuscommon.com/library/ezproxy/ticketdemocs.asp?sch=suo&turl=https://search-ebscohost-com.southuniversity.libproxy.edmc.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rfh&AN=ATLA0001941100&site=eds-live.
“Factors in the Equation.” South University. MIN7561 W2L2, 2016. https://myclasses.southuniversity.edu/d2l/le/content/52238/viewContent/2092134/View.
Manser, Martin H. Zondervan Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009.
Nichols, Terence L. Death, and Afterlife: a Theological Introduction. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2010.
Pappas, D. M. “Recent Historical Perspectives Regarding Medical Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide.” British Medical Bulletin 52, no. 2 (1996): 386–93. https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordjournals.bmb.a011554.
Sawyer, M. James. Survivor’s Guide to Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006.
Thompson, Shannon. “Intraperitoneal Chemotherapy for the Treatment of Ovarian Cancer: Quality of Life versus Quantity of Life.” Journal of Gynecologic Oncology Nursing 17, no. 1 (2007): 13–16. https://www.thecampuscommon.com/library/ezproxy/ticketdemocs.asp?sch=suo&turl=https://search-ebscohost-com.southuniversity.libproxy.edmc.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=rzh&AN=106291023&site=eds-live.
 Shannon Thompson, “Intraperitoneal Chemotherapy for the Treatment of Ovarian Cancer: Quality of Life versus Quantity of Life.,” Journal of Gynecologic Oncology Nursing 17, no. 1 (2007): pp. 13-16.
 “Factors in the Equation,” South University (MIN7561 W2L2, 2016), https://myclasses.southuniversity.edu/d2l/le/content/52238/viewContent/2092134/View.
 “Atonement Theory and Its Impact,” South University (MIN7561 W4L4, 2016), https://myclasses.southuniversity.edu/d2l/le/content/52238/viewContent/2092143/View.
 Paul J Brown, “Bodily Resurrection and Its Significance for Ethics: a Study of 1 Corinthians 15,” Trinity Journal 34, no. 1 (2013): pp. 78-79.
 Martin H. Manser, Zondervan Dictionary of Bible Themes: The Accessible and Comprehensive Tool for Topical Studies (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009).
 D. M Pappas, “Recent Historical Perspectives Regarding Medical Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide,” British Medical Bulletin 52, no. 2 (January 1996): pp. 386-393, https://doi.org/10.1093/oxfordjournals.bmb.a011554.